The Bonne Terre Chamber of Commerce crowd on Wednesday at Pizza 101 South heard an update from City Administrator Shawn Kay, joined by Police Chief Doug Calvert and Fire Chief David Pratte, regarding the city’s 1-cent sales tax placed on the April 5 ballot.
Kay said if voters approve, the tax could raise about $500,000 a year for the fire and police departments which, like many other rural first-responder departments, have struggled to compete with better-funded, better-paid entities to the north.
Farmington, Desloge and Park Hills recently passed modest increases in their sales tax rates in an effort to better fund their departments. If Bonne Terre voters approve the 1% increase in the tax collected by sales made in Bonne Terre, the city would still have one of the lowest tax rates in the county, he said.
“Many people don’t know this, but we have police officers who are on the road, handling these situations and make $14 an hour,” he said. “Now I know I’m talking to a lot of business owners here and many of you pay more than $14 an hour, you’re probably thinking, ‘we pay our people more than that and we’re struggling to get them and retain them.’
“We’re fortunate that we have a lot of dedicated officers who are willing to go out there and put their lives on the line every day to protect our property and our interests, yet we’re not able to pay them enough for their work. We’re pretty much funded here in the city by sales tax and we’re about tapped out as far as what we have to work with and the demand for police and fire services has gone up quite a bit.”
Kay said in the past, many city employees were able to volunteer for the fire department in addition to their city jobs, but that has dropped off as well and the department relies almost exclusively on volunteer firefighters, headed by Chief Pratte who often has to blaze ahead by himself, then wait for the volunteers to come along to help lay the hose and battle the fire. Kay said the Seagrave fire truck is about 30 years old, and if anyone has priced a fire truck recently, they can run anywhere from $350,000 to $750,000.
“So we’re asking that the voters of Bonne Terre consider giving a little more. Now, the council that we have currently has committed to funding the fire and police department at the current level we’re funding it, this money would be over and above what we are currently putting into the departments.”
Kay said passage of the sales tax would not mean all the money would be spent in the first year.
“If we meet their needs, then we would set that back in a special fund and then, going forward, if we needed to have a new piece of fire apparatus or something we would have a little bit of money to be able to work with it,” he said. “But we really are requesting your support to help this community grow and to better protect your interests and the community’s interest.”
Chief Pratte said Kay did a good job of summing up the need for the tax, and added he would also like to ask for the community to show up at the polls.
“I truly ask that you try to support this if you can,” he said. “You know we don’t jump out to talk about a lot of our needs. We truly have a need at the fire station to upgrade and keep the firefighters and their families safe. We really, truly ask you to get out and support this, and talk to your neighbors and people that want to vote in support of Prop 1.”
Chief Calvert said in the 30 years since he entered law enforcement, policing has gone through profound changes, with fewer people entering academies, more education requirements costing more money of recruits, and stiffer competition salary-wise from municipal departments around the state.
“The problem we are having now is, I used to compete in a small little bowl for officers. Bill (Lt. Stegall), Ben (Sgt. Adams) and I, we all teach part-time at the police academy in Park Hills at the college, and these cadets are gone before we ever have a chance to grab them,” Calvert said. “There used to be a few flyers on the wall advertising for positions. Now they actually send recruiters down from all over the state — Arnold, De Soto, Festus, Kansas City, Maryland Heights, and some from out of state, even. And they’re getting sign-on bonuses.”
Calvert said at the very least, it would be important to give not only a raise in pay so as to be able to recruit new officers and keep them – “I don’t want to be a training ground, where we give recruits experience so they can get higher-paid jobs somewhere else”— but to also consider retirement and health benefits, as well.
“We’re not asking to get rich, we’re just wanting retirement, some salary and a few other things to make it so we can recruit and keep officers,” he said. “We don’t want Bonne Terre to have substandard officers, I will not sign off on a substandard police force, we’ve never had that and we’re not going to. We’re just asking everybody in the community to give a little to help us out.”
Sarah Haas is the assistant editor for the Daily Journal. She can be reached at 573-518-3617 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.